Getting Faster More Safely with Sports Rotation

When I was a young guy still in my thirties, the first coach I hired was Rick Niles after reading his book Time Saving Training for Multisport Athletes.  In retrospect, some of the ideas that I learned are even more applicable to older multisport athletes.

Rick and I worked together remotely for about a year or two.  He was in California and would send me my workout schedules.  He talked with me for hours on the phone.  At the time, I was living in Washington, DC and running much faster than I do now.  The most radical training tip that I got from Rick was the idea of “sports rotation”– an idea which doesn’t get nearly the attention that it deserves.  As a younger athlete, I could handle a lot more that was thrown at me– consequently, I don’t know if the real benefits of this approach to training was as well-tuned to my circumstances as it is for older athletes (like me now).  Also, when I was younger, I wanted to know how to run and bike at a high level simultaneously before learning how to rotate them.  After working with another coach to get that straightened out, we both went back to a modified version of sports rotation that started producing great results.

What is Sports Rotation?

Sports rotation is simply rotating the focus of your training to a single sport (e.g. running) for a short period while keeping the other sports (e.g. cycling and/or swimming) in “maintenance mode.”   I’ve found that the best form of “maintenance mode” for me is moderate length workouts in zones 1-2 with an occasional microburst of speed (more on this later).  For the sport that is “in focus,” all of the hard workouts of the week (typically 2-4) are dedicated to that one sport and all recovery is geared to making those key workouts as hard and successful as possible.

There are three immediate advantages to sports rotation.

  • Specialization Makes You MUCH Faster. If you have ever dedicated yourself to a single sport after competing in multisport, you probably experienced huge improvements quickly in that sport.  This improvement is due to specialization– the body does well what the body does frequently.  Reduce or eliminate the distractions of other athletic activities and substitute the workouts you would have otherwise dedicated to those distractions to your focus sport and you’ll notice that you get fast in a hurry.
  • Putting Sports in Maintenance Mode Reduces Injuries.  Endurance sports injuries are, by and large, repetitive stress injuries.  Most of our injuries are not because of accidents or major trauma that we suffer, but are due to repeated smaller strains that we endure.  These are tiny movement in the wrong way or having minor forces push against us from slightly wrong directions— just repeated thousands and thousands of times day after day.  Most of the time, we can handle these small anomalies, but when we increase the intensity for weeks on end, the wheels start falling off the truck.  But regularly putting a sport into maintenance mode dramatically reduces these forces and gives your body time to repair the micro trauma and keep going.
  • Infinitely Easier to Design Workout Plans.  If you’ve ever designed a training plan, you’ll know that it’s relatively easy to create a single sport training plan but infinitely harder to balance out two sports and even harder to balance out three.  For most coaches, the answer is just to jam pack a triathlete’s schedule with impossible days that just add up to compromised workouts and exhaustion.  Using sports rotation, you just have two workouts a day– one in your focus sport and one workout in one of your maintenance sports.

What Should I Focus on and How Long Should it Go?

Not to sound evasive, but the answer is “it depends.”  If you are training to qualify for Boston and you’ve been racing Olympic distance races, then 3-4 months is not an unrealistic focus period.  A long stretch like this gives you plenty of time to build the necessary volume and stretch out the distance at which you can maintain your anaerobic threshold.  However, if you were coming from a base of several years of Ironman training, that same focus period may only take you 3-4 weeks.  My old coach (after Rick) and I used to regularly have builds that had me racing a duathlon in late spring or early summer, switching to cycling for late summer to get ready for state TT championships, and then switching to running for a fall half-marathon.

While it is obviously a highly individual decision, I now find that I prefer much shorter builds of only 3-4 weeks.  I prefer shorter periods for a couple of reasons.  First and foremost, longer single-sport focus can make me into too much of a specialist– with the result that switching sports is really long and painful.  In the short term, much of this pain can be eliminated by doing a better job at the maintenance workouts, but eventually fitness starts to shed in those non-focus sports.  Shorter builds entirely prevents that shedding of fitness.  Second, longer builds may encourage more injuries– particularly if you are focusing on running.  This shouldn’t be a surprise.  If your body is used to only 1-2 hard runs a week and suddenly has to endure 3-4 hard runs in the same time period, it’s highly likely to revolt after a few weeks.  In fact, a good friend of mine just had this happen to him with a case of hamstring tendinitis about 2 months after shifting from a duathlon focus to preparing for a Boston qualifying effort.  A shorter build is more of a ninja-like “get in and get out” operation– and hopefully avoids the injuries in the process.

How do I focus each mini-build period?  This depends on what time of year it is.  If it the off-season, well, I tend not to use this method as my goal is just to build as much all-round fitness as possible.  In a sense, everything is in maintenance mode.  This also allows me the extra time I need for dedicated strength training to get ready for the next season.  As race season draws near, my training obviously focuses on becoming a lot more specific– and for me that means a lot more hard tempo runs and FTP rides.  Here, a typical build week for running or cycling will include one speed effort (for running, that’s mile repeats and for cycling it’s hard hill efforts), one tempo effort (for both sports, that’s 2 x 20-30 minutes at AT/FTP) and one long effort (for running, that’s 90+ minutes of moderate running and for cycling, it’s a 2-3 hour effort at 85-91% FTP).  I use my first week in each mini-build to do each workout and figure out where I’m suffering (compared to the last time I did a build)– this helps me make minor adjustments for the coming weeks.  For instance, if I’m suffering on the hills in a bike build but cruising through my FTP efforts, I’m obviously going to give hills a touch more emphasis.  This last example just happens to be going on right now for me, which isn’t at all surprising given all the racing (and AT training) that I’ve been doing during the race season.

How Do I Keep Sports in Maintenance?

In an upcoming post, I’ll describe why I prefer the more modern running coaching strategies of folks like Renato Canova, Brad Hudson, and Steve Magness over the traditional model used by Arthur Lydiard.  The more modern coaching strategies emphasize starting with both easy endurance and top-end speed and “funneling” down to very race-specific speed.  I believe that workouts for sports relegated to “maintenance mode” should be at that same early season effort level (or easier) but at a reduced volume.  These workouts combine moderate length, easy zone 1-2 workouts sprinkled with very high intensity micro-bursts of less than 10 seconds uphill running blasts (Brad Hudson particularly favors these) or less than 30 second all-out cycling bursts.  I think this is the best form of maintenance work for four reasons:

  • Helps Keep You Fresh and Ready to Go.  While this is the subject of a separate post and might just reflect my own body/brain, when I start doing regular workouts like this, I just feel “fresher”– less sore but still revved and ready to go.  So if an attractive weekend duathlon comes along, I’m still in fine shaping for doing it.
  • Easier on Your Body.  Gentle zone 1-2 workouts hardly put any stress on the body.  I prefer these to just doing shorter interval workouts or a watered down focus workout.  As an older athlete, one of the huge advantages to putting a sport in maintenance is the reduction of stress on the body– and doing zone 1-2 workout with some sprints is perfect for this.
  • Your Body Needs It.  We all need more gentle aerobic work.  Just ask a coach like Philip Maffetone, who advocates having most of your training at a heart rate of 180 minus your age.  Or have a substrate utilization test (e.g. New Leaf) done.  Or ask one of the newer coaches (e.g. Steve Magness), who will tell you that you need to stimulate all of the energy systems (particularly the aerobic) all year round.  Bottom line will be that more aerobic work never hurts and always helps.
  • Your Brain Needs a Break.  Training hard near AT/FTP for extended periods of time is tiring and can get downright soul-crushing.  One of my coaches used to regularly prescribe “like the bike” workouts (1 hour rides in zones 1-2) whenever he sensed that I was approaching mental burnout.
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